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Living Buildings, Living Economies, and a Living Future

David Korten: What we can learn from two of the most exciting emerging movements of our time.

Rooftop garden, photo by Evan Long

In Brooklyn, a rooftop vegetable garden overlooks the Manhattan skyline.

Photo by Evan Long

At a recent conference, I saw the potential for blending two of the most exciting emerging movements of our time—the living building and the living economies movements. A vision of the combination of these two movements energized me with renewed hope that we humans can end our isolation from one another and from nature—that we can move forward to achieve a prosperous, secure, and creative human future for all.

The Living Building Challenge

The conference I attended was led by Jason McLennan of the Cascadia Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute. Ambitiously titled “Living Future 2011,” the conference focused on the “Living Building Challenge,” which takes Green Building standards to a new level. As I listened to the conference presenters, I heard some of the brightest and most tech-savvy minds in architecture, construction, and urban planning spell out the practical possibilities for creating built spaces around integrated energy, water, and nutrition (food) systems. Some of the ideas are still theoretical. Most, however, are already in application or being incorporated into physical structures now under construction.

These innovative proposals eliminate waste, feature natural lighting, and provide for onsite capture of rainwater, energy, and organic matter for recycling and reuse.

These innovative proposals eliminate waste, feature natural lighting, and provide for onsite capture of rainwater, energy (wind, solar, and thermal), and organic matter (food scraps and human waste) for recycling and reuse, including for urban gardens (edible roofs and walls and built in green houses).

Water is used in the first cycle for drinking, dish washing, and showering; recycled for laundry and micro-flush composting toilets; and directed from there to onsite gardens from which it filters into the aquifer. Hot water, cooking, and space heating are integrated to optimize overall energy efficiency.

eco_sense_house.jpgThe World's First Living Buildings
Once deemed too ambitious, the next generation of green building is now a reality.

Integrating multi-purpose buildings into a larger multi-building neighborhood or district system adds opportunities to develop public green spaces, community gardens, edible landscaping, and small-scale poultry and livestock production, as well as natural wetlands and living machine water purification to continuously recycle nutrients, water, and energy.

Integrative projects also create opportunities to balance the utility loads of businesses, which generally have greater energy needs during the day, and residences, which have greater needs during nonbusiness hours. Bringing residences, employment, shopping, and recreation together in close proximity minimizes transportation requirements and facilitates the sharing of autos, bicycles, appliances, and tools, and community connections to mass transit, bike trails, and other transportation alternatives.

The Living Economies Connection

The living building framework focuses attention on shelter and nutrition as the basic essentials of a human livelihood. It seeks to remedy the dysfunctions of current infrastructure designs that isolate us from one another and operate in opposition to the biosphere’s natural generative processes. The living economies framework focuses on networks of living enterprises and seeks to remedy the dysfunctions of an economic system that contributes to this same isolation and disconnect.

Both movements seek to bring the way we live into alignment with the structure and dynamics of Earth’s biosphere, which self-organizes locally everywhere to optimize the sustainable utilization of energy, water, and nutrients in support of life.

The corporate ruled global economy isolates people and communities from the sources of their food, energy, water, materials, and manufactured goods, leaving them dependent on corporate controlled global supply chains that are wasteful, unstable, unaccountable, and environmentally and social destructive. The underlying system structure and dynamics are in most every respect mirror opposites of those of the biosphere.

Working in opposition to the biosphere, the global economy is maintained only by unsustainable dependence on a non-renewable fossil fuels subsidy. It is already failing and its ultimate collapse is only a matter of time.

The living economies movement seeks to displace this failed economic system with a planetary system of resilient, self-reliant local economies comprised of human-scale, locally-owned enterprises that use local resources to meet local needs in cooperative alignment with the structure and dynamics of local ecosystems.

The living economies movement seeks to build a planetary system of resilient local economies comprised of human-scale, locally-owned enterprises that use local resources to meet local needs.

Up to this point in time, the living economies movement has focused on the enterprise as the primary unit of production. The living buildings movement brings in a focus on restoring the household as a unit of food, energy, and water production. Each is an essential contributor to household and community livelihoods in a living future, and each creates opportunities for the other.

Implementing the Living Building Challenge creates many opportunities for local businesses to supply and install locally sourced building materials and technologies for the construction of new buildings and for retrofitting existing ones.

While home production will reduce demand for conventional food, water, and energy services, it will create new opportunities for local businesses to provide relevant expertise and inputs. There will be needs for local food processing and market facilities, as well as for businesses that specialize in creating and maintaining edible walls, roofs, and backyard gardens for households that lack the skills or inclination to do their own planting and maintenance.

Many of these activities require financing from community banks, mutual savings and loans, and credit unions that understand and support the unconventional technologies and ownership arrangements involved. Rebuilding community financial institutions that support all elements of the local living economy is a top priority of the living economies movement. 

A Natural Alliance

The leaders of the living economies movement are predominantly entrepreneurs who view the world through the lens of marketing, finance, supply chains, and business value propositions. They are natural doers and risk takers eager to test new ideas, disinclined to spend a lot of time on planning, and impatient with drawn-out conceptual conversations.

Burj Khalifa by Ahmad DXBThe Tyranny of the Big, the Beauty of the Small

Green building leader Jason McLennan on ways to keep our buildings and cities at a healthy, human scale.

The leaders of the living building movement are predominantly architects, with a sprinkling of urban planners, developers, engineers, and contractors. The architects and urban planners view the world through the lens of design and structure, think in terms of systems, and are drawn to conceptual frameworks that deepen understanding of what is required to bring the human species into alignment with the structure and dynamics of Earth’s biosphere.

The living economies movement stands to benefit from the living building movement’s conceptual grounding in ecological systems thinking. The living buildings movement stands to benefit from the living economies movement’s skills in linking local businesses into mutually supportive networks of business relationships. The living building developers and contractors mix easily with the living economy entrepreneurs and are a natural bridge between the two movements. Both movements stand to reap significant benefit from this natural alliance.

The Connected Life

We humans, in a fit of adolescent hubris, have sought to liberate ourselves from the responsibilities of life in community. We are in denial of our fundamental nature as living beings—forgetting that because of the way life manages energy, living beings exist only in active relationships to other living beings.

We have so confused individual autonomy with personal liberty that we have created economies that reduce caring human relationships to soulless financial exchange and structured our physical space around buildings and auto-dependent transportation systems that wall us off from one another and nature. In isolation from nature we have sought to dominate and control rather than work with nature’s natural generative processes. We have paid a terrible price.

We will be constantly reminded of the extent to which our happiness and well-being depend on our active engagement with the generative living community of which we are a part.

As we restructure our physical and economic relationships to achieve true economic efficiency and reduce the human burden on the biosphere, we will see even more clearly our interdependence with one another and the place we live. We will know where our food, water, and energy come from. We will know where our wastes go. And most of all we will be constantly reminded of the extent to which our happiness and well-being depend on our active engagement with the generative living community of which we are a part.

The challenges we face in making the transition are enormous. But so too is the opportunity to create and secure a living future for ourselves and our children for generations to come. 


David Korten author pic

David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). His books include Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World.

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